This is the story I was told not to tell. This is the story publishers wouldn’t touch. This isn’t about the Larry Nassar trial or the Harvey Weinstein scandal, about a monstrous man and his hundreds of victims showcased in the media. This is the story of a father preying on his daughter. This is about a societal system of suppression, fear, and denial.
Sexual abuse memoirs were popular sells in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the McMartin day care sexual abuse case made them titillating. Then Peter Freyd coined “false memory syndrome” after his adult daughter accused him of childhood sexual abuse, and abuse memories began to be challenged in court cases. (False memory syndrome was later debunked by scientific research on traumatic memory.)
For publishers, abuse memoirs became risky, unless the portrayal was salacious, as in The Kiss, packaged as a story about the narrator’s “relationship” with her father. Recently, abuse stories have surfaced only sporadically: a true crime (The Fact of a Body) and a prurient, graphic account written by an anonymous author (The Incest Diary).
When I began writing a memoir about overcoming the effects of incest, I set out to master craft and business. Over many years, I was accepted into prestigious writing workshops, including Bread Loaf. Workshop faculty responses to my work ranged from “I’d advise you to remove any mention of sexual abuse” to “I don’t understand why people vilify pedophiles” to “choose another topic, don’t write about this anymore.” A renowned memoirist told me that her friend’s grown daughter accused him of abusing her as a girl, and “of course it wasn’t true, and lives were ruined.”
One well-known author saw beyond the apprehension—“This is dark but it has levity and power”—and gave my manuscript to her bigwig literary agent, who phoned me, expressing high praise for my writing before her tone turned angry: “Put this story in a drawer. Better yet, get rid of it. Write about something else. Anything else.” Before she hung up, her voice broke: she revealed she’d been a stalking victim.
This is the story I was told not to tell, and yet, I persisted. Magazines were more accepting. At the advice of agents and editors, I published parts of my story in Salon, the Huffington Post, and Glamour. My writing caught the attention of The Steve Harvey Show producers, who featured me on a double-episode series.
I queried a multitude of agents. Over half requested my manuscript. Several phoned but then declined to represent me, citing my lack of a byline in the New York Times. When I pointed out that they knew that before they called, they explained that publishers are “skittish” about abuse stories. I can publish a story about murder, or cancer, or cutting off my arm to save my life, but I can’t publish about how I metaphorically cut off parts of myself in order to survive sexual abuse.
The novel form is acceptable: The Lovely Bones and The Perks of Being a Wallflower were bestsellers adapted into movies. Why haven’t I spun my story as fiction? It isn’t fiction. But there’s a problem with my story being real.
I’ve packaged my story as a pet memoir, a mother-daughter memoir, and a dating memoir, and each time received passes with recurring paradoxical remarks: “the market is saturated with abuse stories” and “there’s no readership”; “such a compelling voice and writer’s platform” and “the writer’s platform is problematic.”
My most recent agent gave up on my fifth manuscript, a love letter to my future life partner, after a handful of editors declined. Despite the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, she’d asked me to remove all traces of my abuse history. I toned down some details but refused to cut the portions setting up the book’s premise, which is to narrate my (hopeful) journey of overcoming major life obstacles.
Literary gatekeepers believe the truth disables rather than empowers. This enables our abuse culture. This is about the choice to be cowardly or revolutionary.
I keep searching for the publisher who’ll be brave. This is the story I’ve—we’ve—been told not to tell. And yet the truth is, sharing that deep dark secret with the world is a transformative act that can set us all free.
Tracy Strauss is former essays editor of The Rumpus.